The Importance of Civility and Professionalism

How to have a civil debate online!

Photo by Gratisography on

I am a member and administrator in a Facebook group, and one of the members was kind enough to give me a shout out for my article on (which is also on this site). As is somewhat inevitable when you talk about something like income inequality, the conversation turned somewhat political. This is always a huge red flag for us administrators in the group because of the types of people in the group. Political conversations rarely turn out in a positive light, and often end up with heated debate and arguments.

So, it was with a little bit of trepidation I saw this post become political, and I was a little worried about where it would end up. There were a few close calls, but much to my surprise, we ended up with some new ideas and opinions, and ended up on a very positive note with everyone involved exchanging travel tips and suggestions (believe it or not)!

So, what made this different than other debates and heated discussions about politics in the group? What was it about this one that ended up with travel tips instead of removal from the group?

Here are some takeaways from this conversation that will help you the next time you find yourself in an electronic debate!

  1. Discuss the ideas and opinions, not the people. For the most part, our conversation focused on the ideas and opinions that were being brought forth and everyone stayed away from personal attacks. This is an art in not only what you say, but how you listen. Electronic mediums like Facebook make it very hard to get the whole story because we don’t get any of the non-verbal cues that make communication so complex. Everyone in this conversation understood that we were talking about ideas and opinions, and nobody took personal offence at anything that was said.
  2. Ignore Straw Men and Red Herrings. We all ended up setting up Straw Man arguments and Red Herrings throughout this conversation, mostly unintentionally. There is an art to having an open and engaged dialogue, especially when there are dozens of rabbit holes you can run down, as is the case with income inequality conversations. Whenever we got off track, somebody always brought us back to the core conversation and focused our attention on the central argument.
  3. Admit the places where your knowledge and/or experience is lacking. At one point in the conversation, one person brought up an incredibly relevant and important point that I hadn’t ever considered. I’m not afraid to admit that I can be wrong, and I believe it is especially important to be open to new ideas and opinions when the conversation is with someone who is both more experienced, and who has opinions that are opposite of yours.
  4. Go into the conversation expecting to learn something, not to change anyone’s mind. Challenging conversations are a fine art, and one that you have to go into expecting to learn something instead of change minds. The openness that comes with this approach is crucial to having a productive discussion instead of being frustrated. When you go into a conversation trying to change someone’s mind, you aren’t leaving yourself open to seeing the situation in the same way they do, or to the possibility that you might be wrong. Everyone in this conversation had an open mind, and nobody really expected to change anyone’s mind in the first place. We exchanged opinions and ideas, and I think we all gained a better appreciation for the way the others see the situation.
  5. Acknowledge the civility of the conversation, and thank everyone involved for continuing to be civil. The only way we will ever learn something new is by listening to opinions and ideas that are outside of our own. The internet – and social media in particular – have become echo chambers of our own opinions, thoughts, and ideas. When the only thing we ever hear is the same thing we already believe, our belief in that idea or concept is reinforced without regard for whether it is correct or not. This is part of the reason why flat-earth and anti-vaccination theories continue to abound, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. When we truly listen to another idea or opinion, especially one that runs contrary to our own beliefs, then we have the opportunity to learn something. We must be open to that learning, and have to be willing to admit that we don’t know everything.

Internet and social media conversations have been a source of consternation and frustration for years. I’ve been responsible for some bad arguments in my time online, and I’m actually very disappointed in myself for those times when I tried to argue just for the sake of arguing. But maybe we have an opportunity to turn the page on the internet’s echo chamber if we learn to argue in a productive way. Maybe it’s time we learn to listen and listen to learn.


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